Sunday, April 30, 2017

Friday, April 28, 2017

Spring Cleaning #3

click photo to see it all

100 Days of Solipsism

Apart from known and suspected evil, apart from the blatant money-grubbing and wholesale incompetence, and the ongoing humiliation of the American presidency, what we've seen so far can be characterized as 100 days of solipsism, in which virtually everything--facts, policy, reality--is an unassailable extension of one egomaniac's maniacal ego.

It's all in two quotes from his most recent interview (with Reuters) that are already resonating in the early morning hours.  First, his warning that if negotiations should fail,“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” he said. “Absolutely.”

The second is the admission that, reviewing these first 100 days of being President of the United States,  "I thought it would be easier."

The first tells us not only that he is clueless as to the effects of his words--providing precisely the inflammatory statement confirming for the North Koreans that the US is about to launch a war on them--but that his ignorance is unassailable. What he says is right because he says it.

The second reflects a blithe belief in his ability to do what other presidents could not do, or could do only patiently, carefully and with great effort.  All that previous presidents or even presidential candidates did to prepare for this office was unnecessary, at least for him.  He didn't have to prepare, he doesn't have to work at it.

So this presidency has been a blizzard of executive orders that are little more than public relations releases, largely incoherent and unenforceable. Poorly conceived policies, a supposed tax reform package that is nothing but a page of bullet points.

His attempts at governing amount to bullying, and when that doesn't work, he becomes the bluffer-in-chief because he can't face being seen as losing.

At the top, contending idiots with no appropriate experience fight each other, while he and his family use the White House to enrich themselves in blithe defiance of the Constitution and law, getting away with it in the plain sight of a  media and justice system seemingly stunned and helpless.  Meanwhile the federal government as a whole starts to fall apart, lacking leadership and losing staff not sufficiently loyal.

As for the Russian connection, which is already wrecking careers and may bring down this government, I can only suggest following Rachel Maddow, because she is a consummate story teller as well as reporter, and she puts together the accumulating narrative.  Though I'm sick of it already.  I'm way too old for this.  But ego was implicated in the fall of Nixon because of Watergate, and it so far looks likely ego will emerge as essential to this so far shadowy scandal.

The egomaniac's ego may look impregnable. But the egocentric are also fragile, susceptible to flattery and manipulation, and in power, they are inherently unstable.

There are enough of these in business and politics that people know how to exploit these weaknesses, and so we observe the tawdry attempts to curry favor, as through the apprentice dictator's daughter, who does not appear to be exactly an innocent victim.

As for the future, we can only hope that a nation condemned to one hundred days of solipsism gets a second opportunity on earth.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Spring Cleaning #2

BK photo--click photo to see it all

History and Memory

There are historical firsts every day, some more generally significant than others.  For example on Wednesday, for the first time, a player born in Africa played in a US Major League baseball game.  He's an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and in his first at bat he hit a single.  He has a great baseball name, too: Gift Ngoepe.

It's of special interest to baseball fans, and somewhat curious in general, in that many African Americans have played the game.  In fact, the first all-black starting lineup also belonged to the Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1970s.

But the lack of African players has not been due to racial discrimination, at least not since Jackie Robinson. Baseball is apparently not a major sport in any African country, and to be born and raised in South Africa presents fewer opportunities to learn and play the game.

A flood of African players doesn't seem on the immediate MLB horizon, but there was another somewhat stunning historical first that may forecast the future. Reports Quartz:

The seismic shift in global energy production was powerfully in evidence today (April 21), when all electricity in the UK was produced for a 24-hour period without burning a single shovelful of coal—for the first time since the industrial revolution [began.]

Consider that the industrial revolution essentially began in England in the late 18th century, and that its growth is largely responsible for global heating and the Climate Crisis.  The massive burning of coal is historically the chief cause (though oil is catching up.)  This event hopefully forecasts a near future when a day without burning coal is a normal day in the UK and the US, and rapidly thereafter, everywhere.

Another historical first has more to do with our relation with the past.  The New York Times ran a feature on Emma Morano, who at her death recently was the oldest known person in the world.  She was 117.

She lived in a modest room in an Italian town, and the article ran large pictures of her possessions, as if they were already remarkable relics of a faraway time. Although to me they were quite familiar from my own grandparents and their friends and contemporaries.  Her odd habits weren't odd to me.  Some have been passed down.

But a kind of throwaway line in the story stopped me.  Here it is:" Ms. Morano, the last person documented as being born in the 1800s.."

So that's a big change.  If this is true, we have all lost forever direct contact with the nineteenth century.

I think of my Italian grandparents, both born in the 1890s.  I think of a grandparent of John F. Kennedy, who reputedly lived during both the assassinations of JFK and of Abraham Lincoln.  Or Kennedy himself, noting in his 1961 Inaugural that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans, born in this century..."  He was the first President of the 20th century not to have been born in the 19th.

When time escapes memory it becomes history.  Photographs and sound recordings provide some connection, but especially writing--both diaries and memoirs as well as fictions based on times remembered rather than only researched.

We still have those from the 19th century.  But none of us will ever again touch the hand of someone who lived in it. Nor will we hear a new memory, perhaps one that had not emerged before.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Spring Cleaning #1


The Cover-Up is Working

It remains one story--and one outrage--among many, usually newer.  But Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Keith Olbermann are following the Russia Connection to the current White House regime and the election that made them the regime, every day.  They are following on-the-ground reporting, for instance, recently in the New York Times, the Daily Beast and Politico.

I won't attempt to reiterate.  But it continues to smell big time, because the regime is quietly engineering a cover-up, and so far it is very successful.

A few lowlights: The House investigation directed by Republicans has gone silent.  The Senate investigation, which made much of its bipartisan intent to get to the bottom of it all even if the House didn't, has reportedly hired no staff to investigate full time, no experienced investigators at all, issued no requests for documents and subpoenaed no witnesses.

While a Politico story and a House Oversight Committee report has deepened the almost unbelievable security screwup of Mike Flynn, Russian Agent as presidential National Security Advisor, the White House insists it has no documents, none at all, concerning Flynn in the White House or during the campaign.

Meanwhile the Justice Department is quietly replacing key personnel to insure that its investigation will quietly die.  The FBI investigation may go on for months or years, in public silence.  Even that investigation is overseen by the new Deputy Attorney General, a regime loyalist.

That Republicans control all three branches of the federal government which makes it easy to collude with this cover-up, and hard not to.  Who can put country above party will tell the tale.  But so far we face what seems to be an unprecedented situation for a well known national security scandal: a cover-up that works.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Mother of All Unnecessary Wars

There is no end to the evil this White House regime attempts.  Some of it has frustrated by the courts, by Congress and fellow Rs, and by its own incompetence.

But even an apprentice dictator holds one outlet for his wounded ego: the military.  And even when North Korea is not so much in the headlines, the acute dangers of disastrous war continue to grow.

American ships are nearing its shores-- (this time for real, apparently), including a submarine docking in South Korea, as the North Koreans conduct massive "live fire exercises" in the vicinity.

While Newsweek graphically describes what a Korean war would look like (at least a million dead--even if nukes are not used), Fred Kaplan in Slate provides perspective: "North Korea is a knotty problem, but there’s no cause for the hysteria that President Trump and his aides have been pumping up in recent days, and it’s time to turn down the heat and the noise, before someone gets hurt."

Kaplan isolates the most incendiary threat of the week:

Retired Gen. John Kelly, secretary of homeland security, said this week that “the minute” North Korea gets a single nuclear-armed missile with the range to hit the United States, “we are at grave risk as a nation.” Really? The United States survived three decades of Cold War when the Soviet Union had more than 1,000 such missiles; and while Kim—like his father and grandfather, who reigned in Pyongyang before him—seems more voluble and risk-prone than the commissars who ruled the Kremlin, his prime imperative is to preserve his regime. There is no evidence that he renders the basic principles of nuclear deterrence obsolete."

Kaplan concludes:

"Finally, for better or for worse, we have no choice but to deal with North Korea diplomatically. South Korea is probably about to elect a president who is far more disposed to engagement with North Korea and far more resistant to confrontation; China—the country most capable of pressuring Kim—is not going to apply so much pressure that the regime collapses suddenly, setting off a refugee crisis and a South Korean (which is to say, U.S.–backed) takeover of the entire peninsula. So there is no alternative to diplomacy. It should be a complex diplomacy, consisting of coercion as well as concessions. But one thing the mix should not include—the thing that’s most likely to set back desired progress—is a threat of military force that no one wants to see carried out and can’t be carried out without catastrophic consequences. That’s the path that Trump seems to be treading now, and the grown-ups around him need to pry him off."


Kaplan thinks it's "unlikely" that the bluffer in chief will actually attack North Korea.  But "unlikely" is a pretty weak word to describe what he is and has already done.

Today a new head of the Secret Service was appointed, a retired Marine general.  The New York Times story suggests it's a good appointment, and the Secret Service could certainly use some reorganizing.  But the man's current job is a huge red flag for me: he's acting deputy commissioner for Customs and Border Protection.  This is an agency that has shown enthusiasm for Homemade Hitler's authoritarian and xenophobic tendencies.  If our dictator apprentice wanted to create his own Gestapo, it could very well begin by turning the Secret Service into his Praetorian Guard.

Far-fetched?  Maybe.  But there is no end to the evil he attempts.

Next


Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.

--President Obama, participating in a forum on public engagement with six young people at the University of Chicago on Monday, as quoted in the New Yorker article titled Back in Chicago, Obama Looks to the Future.

The Chicago Tribune focused on another general lesson that works for politics, marriage and in general:

Of his organizing days, Obama said it was important to spend time "listening and finding out what they're interested in and connecting their immediate needs to policies that have influence on their immediate concerns."

"Listen to understand rather than listen to respond. That will save you a lot of heartache and grief," said Obama, who added that it was a lesson he learned in marriage.

In his own words as recorded for the New York Times, President Obama was even more direct: don't make the mistake of telling people what issues they should be interested in; spend the first six months listening to what people say are issues they are interested in, and connect policies to that.

"This community taught me that ordinary people, when working together, can do extraordinary things,” Mr. Obama said. “This community taught me that everybody has a story to tell that is important.”


President Obama took his own advice by spending much of the hour listening to the young participants in the hall.

Though all the reports noted that President Obama didn't talk about the current regime, the Washington Post emphasized public policy :

In his first public appearance since leaving the White House in January, former president Barack Obama told young leaders here Monday that “special interests dominate the debates in Washington” and that getting involved in their communities is the best antidote to the divisiveness dominating the country's politics...

“The one thing I'm absolutely convinced of is: Yes, we confront a whole range of challenges, from economic inequality and lack of opportunity, to the criminal justice system to climate change to issues related to violence. All those problems are serious, they're daunting,” Obama said. “But they're not insolvable. What is preventing us from tackling them and making more progress really has to do with our politics and our civic life.”

This was President Obama's first public event since shortly after leaving office.  There will be more soon, and everyone expects that he'll talk about other subjects. But he made clear that young people are a major concern of his post-presidency:

“The single most important thing I can do,” the former president told an audience of students, is to “help in any way I can prepare the next generation of leadership to take up the baton and to take their own crack at changing the world.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth's Day (is Every Day)


"One thought ever at the fore—
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space,
All Peoples of the globe forever sail, sail the same voyage, are
bound to the same destination.”

Walt Whitman
1891 edition of Leaves of Grass

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Spring Thing

BK photo, taken on Easter
Spring began today.  Sure, the calendar says it's been spring for a month.  But in the places I've lived before, in PA and New England and the Midwest--there's been this transitional period, the thaw, the weeks of cloudiness and rain.  But spring, that begins with sunshine and warmth.

Here on the North Coast of CA, it's not the first time that we've had some sun to spell the waterlogged week.  But today felt different.  And even though next week looks rainy again, there was little more feeling of future frequency in the sunshine.

You could see spring in the annual appearance of the California poppies, or the profusion of calla lilies (not as tall yet as they were a few years ago, but the flowers are bigger, some the size of saucers, if you remember saucers.)  I'd feared for the ferns in the front of the house--while some were growing near the walls elsewhere, they'd disappeared entirely from the area in front of the picture window.  But once they started coming back, they kept on coming.  On the sheltered side they're as wild and profuse as ever.

The hardwood trees are greened up, and even the old linden is leafing earlier than usual.

But it's not just the plant life.  Today in the remains of Shay Park I came upon a group of young humans, which included an electric guitarist and drummer making some spacey yet woodsy sounds.   Elsewhere I saw more, their walk expressing a certain familiar restless buoyancy.

I recalled the brilliant but very short springs in Galesburg, Illinois where I went to college.  After a heartlessly long and brutal winter slid into a chilly, murky and rainy pre-spring,  it all changed, seemingly in one day.  The air was warm and as soft as it ever got there.  Everything was a sudden sunlit green--grass, hedges, bushes and trees in a green embrace-- under an amazing sky.

This sort of spring lasted only a few weeks, maybe a month, before the debilitating summer heat muscled in and became a dominating and depressing overseer for the next several months.

The tragedy of that one spring month was that we were nearing the end of the school year, and this fantastic May was filled with final papers and final exams.  As well as the anxieties for the onrushing summer, when environs, relationships, status and even selves would abruptly change. These days of grandeur were too often only glimpsed through distracted, frustrated and worried eyes.

With the sap rising in more than the trees, we hurtled ourselves into heated parties at night.  And so the bright days became even more hazy and distant, a few startling snapshots amidst the apotheosis and wreckage of the school year.

All among the layers of memories now, while I walk with different challenges in a different place in a different spring.  But those springs are present, too.

Climate Crisis Fast and Slow

A river doesn't run through it anymore
In all those radio and TV intros, among Superman's stated powers was the ability to "change the course of mighty rivers" which actually seems of a different order to the next one, "bends steel in his bare hands."

It wasn't Superman however that changed the course of a river in the Yukon of Canada.  It was the climate crisis.  But it did so with super speed.

Observers continue to express surprise at the speed with which glaciers are melting, sometimes right before their eyes.  A glacier melting produces a lot of water, and this time it was enough in the right place to actually change the flow of a river from north to south, from the Bering Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

It is, noted the NY Times story, " [a] process that would ordinarily take thousands of years — or more — happened in just a few months in 2016."

Such a change--which is likely to be permanent--is beyond what Superman usually saw:

"Changes in the flow of rivers can have enormous consequences for the landscape and ecosystems of the affected areas, as well as water supplies. When the shift abruptly reduced water levels in Kluane Lake, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported, it left docks for lakeside vacation cabins — which can be reached only by water — high and dry.

The riverbed of the Slims River basin, now nearly dry, experienced frequent and extensive afternoon dust storms through the spring and summer of last year, the paper stated."

Physical changes, often permanent, directly caused by the effects of climate change, pop up increasingly around the world, though so far not in New York City or Washington where they might possibly be considered news.  Some, like failures in the permafrost that sinks Alaskan villages, or overflooding of small islands, make areas where people lived into areas where they don't.

Such physical impacts will continue, and are very likely to get bigger and more consequential.  There are similar effects in which climate crisis plays a part, as in the cycle of drought and drown that California is experiencing.  For us here on the North Coast, our route to the south on the only "major" highway (which in most parts of the country wouldn't really qualify as such)  is cut off completely by a rock slide onto 101, likely due to the effects of months of rain after years of drought.

The climate crisis also has a hand in another poor year for salmon, leading to the virtual cancellation of the salmon fishing season.  Many fewer young salmon are attributable to a hotter Pacific as well as warmer rivers with less flow in the drought years.

All of this is the steady background, relatively slow though accelerating results of the climate crisis.  More sudden are the consequences of global heating-powered storms, floods, heat waves, changes in atmospheric temps and flows that send frigid air to unfamiliar places.  These "natural disasters" already cost more in lives and money than terrorism or anything else.

Then there are the changes in when the seasons start, as well as the generally higher temperatures, all of which inevitably change animal lifecycles (including disease-bearing insects) and migration patterns.  Major disease problems at some point are all but inevitable.

All of this is well known, and much too ignored.  Especially since what is required, and what will increasingly be required to deal with these effects, are systems and people with the training and equipment to confront each emergency as it arises.  In any given year, these could be many, and several could be simultaneous.

These resources need to be ready and in place before bad things happen.  These resources are almost always maintained by governments, especially the federal government.

So at a time when the country should be building up these resources, the current regime is dismantling them.  Getting rid of skilled people with experience, knowledge and historical memory is fast and easy to do, and may look good on somebody's bottom line this year.  These include EPA and NASA experts as well as emergency and public health people. But once gone, when they are needed over the inexorable years they cannot be conjured up with a tweet and a prayer.

If it's true that the regime is getting pressure from interesting sources not to bail out of the Paris agreement on climate change, and if speculation is correct that they won't bail out completely, that's good but not enough.

First of all, the momentum by the federal government that jump-started clean energy as well as other direct efforts to confront the causes of global warming is slowing and in some cases reversing.

But also, the ability to confront the effects of the climate crisis as they occur is being destroyed.  When we should be building up these resources, the regime is tearing them down, or more accurately, to vary the metaphor, tearing them out by the roots.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Regime That Couldn't Shoot Straight

Our apprentice dictator's campaign of aggressive bluster against North Korea included a mighty threat of an American armada steaming steadfastly towards that country, with mighty aircraft carrier and even mightier submarines.

He lies about everything but how could he possibly lie about that?  But then this armada was photographed in an entirely different part of the world.  Oops.

Turns out he had help screwing this one up.  The Atlantic explains, along with noting other recent errors on the world stage.  It's comedy of the absurd time again, which--as it often was in the past, is also gallows humor.  The stakes of an enemy miscalculating US intentions and actions is potentially enormous for us all.  But apparently we have to get past the US miscalculating itself.

Korean Apocalypse Slow and Fast

The moment that an atomic bomb last exploded over a city, in Nagasaki in 1945
It's already a famous phrase.  In their analysis of the current standoff concerning a nuclear weapon test between the maniac leadership of North Korea and the maniac regime in Washington, two New York Times reporters called it "A Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion."

It's duly noted in a Washington Post roundup of similar comments by experts and published in the Atlantic, Financial Times and other outlets.  It comports as well with Masha Gessen in the NY Review Daily who writes "Trump has become the real version of the man Putin plays on television—an unpredictable, temperamental, impetuous man who will push reality past the limits of the imagination."

But it isn't Homemade Hitler alone--his v.p., sec of state and other underlings are echoing his deadly bluster, apparently having learned--thanks in part to members of the media who themselves apparently learned nothing from 2016--that: "For an American president, bombing is easier than thinking. For an American lawmaker or opinion-maker, it costs nothing to celebrate the resolve of a president who bombs," in the words of analyst David Bromwich.

But let's return to that phrase in the NY Times headline, for implied at the end of it is the possibility of nuclear warfare, which was the all but certain end game of the Cuban Missile Crisis, had it led to military action.  Lots of people are making the calculations, some writing that actual nuclear war is unlikely, though North Korea could inflict huge damage with millions of deaths in South Korea with conventional weapons, in response to a non-nuclear attack by the US to stop their atomic bomb test.  But the risks of nuclear explosions, along with the apparent folly (i.e. no-win situations) of such an attack and such a response, are both assumed and spelled out.

Meanwhile, some in Hawaii are calling for preparations for possible attack, and we in far northern California are wondering about fallout and wind currents from Korea and Japan, and nuclear missiles that miss their big city targets to find their way to us.

But what of the implication that this crisis is a slow motion version?  It's true that the Cuban Missile Crisis happened over the short span of 13 days.  But in crucial ways, it was slow.

 Those of us who lived through the actual Cuban Missile Crisis may remember specific moments over those 13 days, from watching in the living room one evening President Kennedy's televised announcement of Russian offensive missile silos discovered in Cuba, to walking into a classroom where someone had drawn a huge mushroom cloud on the blackboard, to huddling around a radio as the key confrontation between US and Russian ships dissipated, thus failing to set off World War III before gym class.

We knew of but did not see the agonizing meetings in the White House, and few knew of back-channel diplomatic contacts that turned out to be crucial.  But the fact so much of the crisis was played out in public helped keep it somewhat slow, and kept panic from erupting.  This was part of the genius of the approach decided on by President Kennedy--so much was done in public, in full view of American media and the world, so that (for one thing) the chances of either side wildly miscalculating the actions or intentions of the other were minimized.

That's not the case now.  We have the blustery tweets and speeches, relentless in their aggression by both sides.  We see the parade of missiles in North Korea, and note the movement of US Navy ships towards its shores.  But typical of the apprentice dictator, much is hidden.

So if war comes, it will come blazingly fast.  In 1962, nuclear missiles could arrive all across the world in minutes, but in the Cuban Missile Crisis the moves towards that kind of confrontation were deliberate and public (although as we've since learned, it took some luck and some iron nerve by less than senior officers on both sides to prevent a nuclear moment.)

That does not seem to be the case now.  The US position is that it will prevent a North Korean nuclear test.  Such a test conceivably could begin almost without warning.  A response and then the counter-response could occur immediately. Out of the darkness, it could all happen very fast.

Though the "slow motion" phrase is in the Times story's headline, the story itself suggests that this crisis is getting faster. After describing the back-and-forth that has gone on for years (including implied cyber-warfare by the US to subvert missile tests), the authors write:

"What is playing out, said Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who tracks this potentially deadly interplay, is “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” But the slow-motion part appears to be speeding up, as President Trump and his aides have made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the incremental advances that have moved Mr. Kim so close to his goals."

North Korea's nuclear program is reaching a truly dangerous stage, but as has been obvious all along, the US has no good military options short of war--regional or larger-- with the likelihood of nuclear bombs.  There is almost no scenario that doesn't involve millions of casualties in a very short time, with the acute danger of unforeseeable spirals of destructive consequences.

For the truth of the matter seems to be that short of obliterating North Korea with thermonuclear weapons, there seems no way for the US to militarily stop North Korea from building and testing nuclear bombs.  In the Cuban missile crisis there were military leaders who argued for an attack on Cuba, knowing that this would likely spiral quickly into the full thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, JFK had other options and made other choices.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, we had a temperate and ultimately wise President, controlling some military leaders who could have starred in Dr. Strangelove.  We were lucky then, as we were with our President in World War II.  This time, we'll have to look for luck elsewhere.   

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Hope is the Thing with a Long, Long Neck


This is not a question of expect. It is a question of hope. It is a question of faith rather than knowledge. You wouldn’t do it unless you thought there was a chance.” Humans, she said, “have hope built in,” adding, “If our ancestors had not had that component, they would not have bothered getting up in the morning. You are always going to have hope that today there will be a giraffe, where yesterday there wasn’t one.”

Margaret Atwood, author of the once and current bestseller The Handmaid's Tale, the Maddaddam  trilogy of near future dystopia, who is overdue for the Nobel Prize for Literature, in the New Yorker.

Pictured above: April, the Internet's favorite giraffe, with her newborn, Oliver.


From Big Data to Big Lies: The New Hidden Persuaders

My intuition and intelligence both told me that Daniel Kahneman and his Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow are largely bullshit.  I based this view on its oversimplifying and overreaching (all of which are habitual in behavioral psychology) as well as methodological lapses that even I could see, confirmed and elaborated on by the eminent psychologist Jerome Kagan.

But what I didn't realize was the immense influence of Kahneman and his analysis on major institutions, especially on the Internet, that ultimately may have decided the 2016 elections.

These revelations (to me anyway) came in a penetrating review  by Tasmin Shaw of a new highly laudatory and uncritical book on Kahneman and friend,  published in the New York Review of Books.  It leads quickly into the Orwellian world of yet another ultra conservative billionaire and apparently the only thing that unites Bannon and Kushner, the Cambridge Analytica firm that claims to have essentially elected our Homemade Hitler.

Kahneman became famous among economists for his insight that, contrary to classical market economic dogma, people do not rationally choose to spend their money in ways most advantageous to themselves, but let emotional factors override their calculations.  Incredible insight!  Even though this is the very foundation of advertising, and that the heart or appetites winning out over the head with tragic and comic consequences is the theme of countless novels, plays, folk tales and myths over centuries. Amazing!  Give that man a Nobel Prize!  (They did.)

But his current fame is based on his binary worldview of human decisionmaking, between the fast (irrational, cf. emotion and intuition) and the slow (rational, meaning in his terms, doing the math.)  His theory exemplifies its conclusions, in that it is easier to manipulate communication if you know what your audience wants to hear and you present it to them in an appealing way, such as a very simple theory that gratifyingly explains everything with just two cute and easy- to- remember choices.

But he did produce some math, and together with massive data collection, it did help create algorithms and some less than savory techniques to manipulate choices by going directly to emotions, used with alacrity by Amazon and Facebook, among others.

Though the Obama administration made some use of some offshoots of this behaviorial psychology model, Shaw writes, actual political manipulation is claimed for the far right consulting group Cambridge Analytica that cut its teeth proudly manipulating elections in the third world, then may well have worked for the most reactionary Brexit advocates, then definitely did work for our apprentice dictator, and may still be doing so.

Some of the techniques and the Cambridge A. connections to billionaire Robert Mercer and the White House are chillingly described in this Guardian article.  Here again there are Russian connections--like the zombie websites waiting for the trigger word--and there may be more, if indeed Russian agents stole voter registration data and passed it on through the R campaign to political micro-message manipulators like Cambridge A.

Some dispute its effectiveness, Shaw writes. "But this doesn’t mean that there is no threat to democracy once we start relying less on information that can be critically scrutinized in favor of unconscious manipulation."  That manipulation may include actually subconscious phenomena, Shaw suggests, through the use of what used to be called subliminal advertising--for example, emojs flashing on web sites too fast to be consciously seen.

All this is at least as old as Vance Packard and The Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s, but its now on computational and electronic steroids.  There is perhaps an irony in that Kahneman began by advocating for the rational side.  But, as Shaw writes: "The two-systems view has managed to lend the appearance of legitimacy to techniques that might otherwise appear coercive."

Shaw states his own rejection of the Kahneman model:

"Psychologists have not yet uncovered the fundamental mechanisms governing human thought or finally found the secret key to mind control. Since the human mind is not straightforwardly a mechanism (or we are at least far from proving that it is) and its workings are unfathomably complex so far, they may never succeed in that venture. Some of the biases they have identified can easily be redescribed in ways that don’t make them seem like irrational biases at all; some are not transferable across different environments. The fundamental assumption of two discreet systems cannot be sustained."

But--Shaw warns:"this does not mean we can disregard the propaganda initiatives derived from Kahneman and Tversky’s work," especially when wedded with the global influence of the Internet and the power of Big Data.  Big Data magnifies Big Lies.

Shaw's conclusion is glum: "It is still possible to envisage behavioral science playing a part in the great social experiment of providing the kind of public education that nurtures the critical faculties of everyone in our society. But the pressures to exploit irrationalities rather than eliminate them are great and the chaos caused by competition to exploit them is perhaps already too intractable for us to rein in."

The only hope in that regard lies in Kahneman's basic mistake: his fast and slow division, which distorts the nature of both intuition and intelligence.  Actual intuition and intelligence enable us to see patterns (so for example that Homemade Hitler's moronic soundbite speeches finally make sense as crude recitations of the keywords identified in this research as triggers for a selected audience.)  And they also enable us to take charge of changing our own minds--a topic I hope to go into here soon.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Killer of All Nations

When--as announced with great fanfare today-- the US dropped a bomb on Afghanistan with the largest destructive yield of any non-nuclear device ever used by any nation, it followed aspects of several depressing patterns.

First, as has been traditional since even before the days of Nazi Germany, a western nation test dropped its latest bomb on a third world target.  It's likely that the audience intended for this blast included leadership in North Korea and China, Syria and Russia.  Russia, which has been testing its latest weapons in Syria, seems to me likely to counter with some use of one of their own enormous new devices.

The attack was announced the same day as a report surfaced of White House plans to attack North Korea if it tests another nuclear device.  No knowledgeable observer doubts that the North Koreans would retaliate, with massive loss of life in South Korea and beyond.  As one of Lawrence O'Donnell's guest experts said, things that should never be discussed are being discussed.  Partly because both North Korea and the US have unhinged leaders.

 Second, part of the admitted purpose of dropping it was to scare the shit out of the enemy and the surrounding populace--shades of Shock and Awe in Iraq.  And other direct connections to Vietnam.  None of those sickening precedents turned out well.

Homemade Hitler is making a show of giving the military free reign--which has the handy byproduct of encouraging them to like him.  All the better to use them for his apprentice dictatorship.

But a current result has been more civilian deaths and butcheries caused by American weapons, as reported today as well in Syria.  Homemade Hitler campaigning on killing the families of suspected terrorists, and his view of who potential terrorists might be, judging from his immigration policies, is pretty wide.

A few paragraphs from the New York Times report today, with emphasis added:

American commanders in Iraq and Syria have been given more authority to call in strikes, a loosening of the reins that began in the last month of the Obama administration. But some national security experts said that Mr. Trump and the Pentagon risked inflaming anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world with their approach to fighting the Islamic State.

The number of civilian casualties reported in American-led strikes in Iraq and Syria has increased since Mr. Trump took office, and March was the deadliest month for civilians ever recorded by Airwars, a group that tracks bombings. Reports of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria jumped to 3,471 from 1,782 the month before, the group said.

“Trump has ceded responsibilities to his military commanders, and it appears he’s paying little attention to operational details,” said Derek Chollet, who was the assistant secretary of defense for international affairs in the Obama administration.

Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Pentagon was being given leeway to carry out strategy without being told what, exactly, the overarching strategy is. “What they haven’t been given is a lot of strategic guidance to work with,” he said. “They can affect things, but without a guiding strategy, it’s hard to be sure you’re having the desired effect.”

But the increased casualties in Syria “cannot be explained away simply by the increased tempo of the war,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars.

He noted that the number of airstrikes and targets hit actually fell slightly in March, but said his group’s research indicated that civilian deaths had risen sixfold in Syria, with more than 350 killed last month alone.

“This indicates to us a possible loosening of U.S. battlefield rules,” he said, “which is placing civilians at greater risk of harm.”

R.I.P. Dan Rooney

Second only to his father, "The Chief," Dan Rooney was the most beloved figure in Pittsburgh in my lifetime.  A few, like the late mayor Richard Caliguiri and several venerable local media stars might come close, but Rooney likely surpasses them.

Rooney's death was announced today.  He was 84.

He was heir to the Pittsburgh Steelers who oversaw decades of success, bringing six Super Bowl trophies to the city.  But he tested that popularity with his leadership in fighting racism in the NFL, formulating the Rooney Rule that requires that candidates of color be interviewed for top coaching jobs.  He tested it again by openly advocating for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential elections.

Pittsburghers were proud of his influence on the NFL, and they learned something from his calm and conciliatory style.  The NYTimes obituary chronicles his achievements.

He was with the Steelers for his entire working life (starting as a water boy), except for several years as Ambassador to Ireland (where he visited every county.) He was appointed by President Obama, who issued a statement today that reads:

"Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage. I knew he'd do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today.

"And I know the people of Pittsburgh, who loved him not only for the Super Bowl championships he brought as the owner of the Steelers, but for his generosity of spirit, mourn his passing today. Michelle and I offer our condolences to the Rooney family, some of the most gracious and thoughtful people we know -- even as we celebrate the life of Dan Rooney: a championship-caliber good man."

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Peace Sign

In the 1960s there was the "peace sign," the two finger salute that Winston Churchill previously used to denote V for Victory, and that Richard Nixon turned into a signature two handed cliche.

Now there's Keith Olbermann ending his "The Resistance" rants with a full open palm sign as he says the word "Peace."  At times it's a nearly hilarious gesture, as he goes to it directly from his escalating righteous anger.  His latest is a case in point.

But like a lot Olbermann has done, there's a history.  Maybe he's acknowledged or explained it, or maybe he'd deny it, but it seems clear to me.  He's doing Dave Garroway.

Dave Garroway was the first host of the NBC TV show "Today."  In the 1950s he was an early morning fixture.  There were only three national networks, and Today was the only national morning show.  Everybody watched him.

He had an easy-going manner--pretty much the opposite of Olbermann--- and didn't take himself that seriously.  After all, his co-host was a chimp.  No, really, a chimp, named J. Fred Muggs.

But he also became known as someone who could explain big stories and national issues, and why they were important, in ways that a lot of people could understand.  He was called "the Communicator."

Perhaps that's what Olbermann aspires to be.  There's something of a similiar eclectic background.  Olbermann started in sports broadcasting, and has gone back and forth between sports and politics.  Garroway started out as a radio DJ, a humorous feature reporter for KDKA radio in Pittsburgh, then a Chicago TV talk show host.

In any event, Dave Garroway ended every Today Show broadcast with that same open palm sign, and that single word, "Peace."

See? It's this kind of penetrating trivia you have me around to give you.

Blow It Up

I did not want to be spending my time chronicling what was so depressingly easy to foresee.  But here I am, still doing it.  For now.

When you are an unprincipled politician in the White House, let alone an apprentice dictator, and things are going badly, your policies are failing, your poll numbers are dropping, people aren't taking you seriously, what else do you do but send the American military out to blow something up.

At least this time they didn't start with a country.  Just an airfield.  But as a trial balloon, a pilot for a more extensive series, it worked great.  US media ate it up.

And if you find yourself slowly encircled by federal law enforcement, by the FBI and (at least until January 20) the CIA, you need to change the subject, and the best way to do that is to send the American military out to blow something up.  That only works long term however if you can whip up patriotic feeling and identify horrible enemies.  Fortunately they are always out there, ready made.

So now the media is talking about Syria and Russia, and not about the latest happenings in the White House regime--when it was a campaign--coordinating with Russia to bend the presidential election their way by unlawful means.  If you're interested, Rachel Maddow connects the most recent dots.

Keith Olbermann and Paul Krugman call the bombing a stunt.  It's more complicated than that, and more cynical, because the suffering and killing from chemical weapons is real.  But basically, if a stunt is a big noise with little effect done for politics, yes.  It was and is.

I don't know how many ways I have to say it but it's been clear from the beginning. The only way our apprentice dictator succeeds is by war.

The media loves war, for awhile, but for long enough.  Low wattage voters love war, as long as other peoples' sons and daughters are fighting it.  It's a little dicey, since war is more unpopular than it has ever been, but with the right marketing it can be sold.

  War also helps gain control of the military, which our apprentice dictator needs to become a master.  He already has the border patrol and immigration, where fascism is ascendant.  It seems that everything to do with travel, from the TSA to the airlines themselves, is going in an authoritarian direction.  Maybe that's the first place that the intersection of authoritarian rule and the rule of money becomes obvious.

There's another group worth mentioning.  Lacking the same national profile as in the past, white Evangelicals weren't talked about much in 2016.  But they voted, overwhelmingly for Homemade Hitler.  They voted for a Supreme Court that will end legal abortion.

They are also deeply embedded in the R party.  The youth movement that was brought into the R party in the latter 1980s and 90s, that served as foot soldiers in 2000 and in the Bush administration, had as their entry point into politics the evangelical movement, and political organizations founded and run by evangelicals (including Catholics.)  Some of them are highly placed in this White House.

In the New York Review of Books, the eminent Garry Wills reviews the eminent Frances FitzGerald's new book on American evangelicals.  He notes what it is easy for some of us to forget, that evangelicals are all about the coming apocalypse, which they welcome, because the world is damned, but they will be saved.  That, and the highly emotional appeal, motivates them to disdain science and social justice, because they just miss the point, when they aren't evidence of worshipping false gods.

Their most emotional issue is what they call the "baby murder" of abortion. Notice how many times Homemade Hitler said "babies" in describing the television pictures that he said motivated his attack. But even without this specific motivation, war can spark their enthusiasm, especially as it is seen to hasten Armageddon.  This only adds to the frenzy fed by the media.

And here I've wasted another chunk of my dwindling functional time, rattling on about the obvious, when others can do it for larger audiences.  Whatever the tragic flaw was that brought Homemade Hitler into power, the tragedy was thereafter inevitable. Maybe it's resistance of a sort.  But it's not all that healthy to be doing play by play.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

The Lone Ranger Rides Again


Attention boomers!  Or anyone who watched the The Lone Ranger in the early west of television.  Ask anyone who did and it's likely the first thing they will remember is the opening theme and the stirring narration that ends with "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear--the Lone Ranger rides again!"

Well, if this is you, you may be surprised to learn that film of this opening is a rare artifact.  The Lone Ranger series shot only five seasons (one in color), though it was a staple all through the 1950s and for decades beyond, at first in early evening primetime and then on Saturdays.

At some point the series went into syndication, and minutes were cut from each episode to make time for more commercials.  So apparently was most of the opening narration.

At least that is the probable reason that the complete narration is missing from most if not all episodes now available, on YouTube or in various compilation DVDs.   Most DVD packages only re-package the first couple of seasons, with a different opening narration.  Episodes of subsequent seasons carry only a partial version, with slightly different visuals from the one we remember.

So after years of typically obsessive and cockeyed searching, I located this fragment posted by TeeVees Greatest on YouTube, which includes the full theme (music from the William Tell Overture) that ended as well as began each episode.

I know you want to thank me, but I heard you saying--who was that masked man? Hi-yo Silver Away!

Thursday, April 06, 2017

If You Bought It, You Own It

Whatever there is to say about liars and why they are believed, or those aspects of Russian interference in the election we know about or suspect--stealing emails, feeding them to the media, possibly microtargeting propaganda to specific voters identified by voting lists they stole--there is still the individual responsibility to defy the lies, learn the facts, discern the long-term implications of your vote.

But in 2016 a lot of American voters didn't.  That a majority didn't vote for Homemade Hitler and that he got installed on the basis of a few thousand votes in a handful of states, seems to mitigate.  But it doesn't.  Especially because in district after district, and state after state, enough voters installed reactionary Republicans, either by their votes or by not voting.  They kept the Senate and they did what they did today.  They kept the House.  They've got statehouses and governors galore, enough to gerrymander the future.

So once again you may weep, because you bought it, and now you own its dangerous fragments.  You own a reactionary Supreme Court into the foreseeable future. And in general you own a foreseeably grim future due to what's being done and not done to the environment and on addressing the climate crisis, as well as health and financial protections and emergency efficiency.

Even I was ready to toast our luck in surviving the first hundred days without cities in smoldering ruin, or a military dictatorship building in parallel to a new war.  But those hundred days aren't up for another few weeks, and the signs are growing.  Syria?  North Korea?  Both?

There may be reasons for the electoral outcome.  There are no excuses.  You--Democrats, Republicans, Bernie people and other self-styled 'revolutionaries', media and voters-- you bought it when it was obviously going to explode, it bragged it was going to explode. Now you own it.

Debate Made Not Simple


Kowincidentally, my last post--"The White House of Blue Lies"--appeared on what I have since learned was International Fact Check Day.  Of course, you knew that.

I only learned about it from this Washington Post piece, which also has some useful links to listicules about spotting fake news on the Internet, and otherwise fact-checking.

Apropos my piece, the LA Times has a more specific take on Why Trump Lies.  In my piece I also threatened to expound on what makes a fact a fact and related tests for what might reasonably be believed as factual.  Be forewarned that I'm about to do that now. That is, I'm about to explain how I learned to make those judgments.

1950s
First, formal education as it was in the 1950s and 1960s included explanations based on cause and effect in science and history--particularly American history-- along with narrative and propaganda.  By junior high we had a class called Civics, and in high school, social studies and Problems of Democracy.  A lot of it was sanctimonious crap but some of it was useful. It included definitions and examples of evidence and reasoning, and of propaganda , and the more common techniques or types of deliberate falsehoods such as as rumor and innuendo.

We also learned the different kinds of stories in a newspaper, which were easier to spot in those days.  News was on the front page, and all the pages of the first section, except a page or two near the front. On the left hand page, there were the editorials, most often set in a distinctive font.  These editorials were the official opinions of the newspaper, and generally were unsigned.  There would also be one or two editorial cartoons.

The remainder of the page contained letters to the editor and columns on topics in the news, written and signed by individual columnists, almost always journalists or former journalists.  In urban newspapers there might also be opinion pieces written by non-journalists, under their own names.  These are still called "op ed" pieces, because they commonly appeared on the page opposite the editorial page.

There was news later in the paper, including stories on pages devoted to business news, sports, community doings, social news, right back to the obituaries.  There were also feature stories, usually on entertainment or home-relates subjects, maybe a humorous column or two and of course, the comics and the want ads.

Admittedly, the newspaper structure made it easier to separate factual news from opinion, than in the free-for-all of the Internet.  But it was at least worth knowing that there is a difference.  Everyone is entitled to their opinion, as playwright David Hare points out.  But not every opinion is equal--some are based on demonstrable facts, and therefore are better.  You know, because the Holocaust really happened.

We learned the basic rules of objective news, opinion, columns and features which some of us would practice on the school paper.  We also learned the difference between these forms--grouped under the name of "editorial"--and advertising.  We even learned basic kinds of advertising, such as "transfer" (a celebrity transfers her fame by being seen with a product) and "endorsement" (the celebrity actually says to buy the product because he does.)

For hundreds of years, basic schooling included subjects called Logic and Rhetoric.  Elements of these were folded into our subject categories, generally in what we called English.  But these civics courses also included types of logic (especially false logic) and rhetoric (means of persuasion) that especially pertained to public issues.

I believe most of my generation was exposed to such an education.  Those of us who went to Catholic schools got additional experience in argument through the legalistic definitions of morality that made up the rules and regs of Catholicism at that time.  There were definitions of sins for example, and lots of caveats and special cases.  We also were unintentionally exposed to the contradictions of Church dogma and American democratic decision-making.

Some of us got further experience in argument and in testing facts through participation in debate.  I think about this often these days.  I continue to think that what I learned in debate was basic to everything I did in journalism and non-fiction writing, as well as how I judge public issues.

  The first task in every high school debate was to define your terms.  If terms were not understood and agreed upon by both parties, there was no way to engage on the question.  The debaters on opposite sides of the question could argue over the definitions, but they had then to offer their own definitions, clearly and in public.

So let me define my terms.  Interscholastic high school debate in the 1960s had a particular form that it probably doesn't have anymore.  We debated the same topic for an entire school year.  It was set by the National Forensic League, as were the structure and rules of the debates themselves. (We also participated in the Catholic Forensic League, but it had the same topic and followed the same rules.)

Debates went like this: a debater for the Affirmative of the proposition spoke.  Generally this student was supposed to outline the Need for the proposition to be enacted.  Then the First Affirmative was questioned by one of the debaters for the Negative.  Then the First Negative speaker gave a rebuttal, questioned by an affirmative.  Then the Second Affirmative, whose responsibility was to outline a Plan for how the proposition would work.  After questioning, the Second Negative spoke, and was questioned.  I think each side got a final statement, but I'm not sure about that.

What was tricky for a lot of students--and especially for conscientious Catholics, aware of moral positions--was that all debaters had to be prepared to argue both sides, affirmative and negative.  Generally, you didn't find out which side you were charged with arguing until just before the debate (and you often had three debates a day.)

It was considered part of the experience to be able to see an issue from both sides.  That was interesting, and there were ways to do that.  But basically the problem remained: how could you argue against something with the same persuasiveness as you argued for it without being a hypocrite?

One way was to agree with the Need but suggest your opponents' Plan was so flawed that it wouldn't work.  I recall that we used this strategy on the proposition in our first year, 1962-3, which was: Resolved: That the United States should promote a Common Market for the western hemisphere.  This wasn't exactly a hot button issue, although it was topical because of the European Common Market, established in 1958, that paved the way for the European Union, which became a reality in 1994.

Debating this topic required a lot of research into international trade, the economics and politics of it, and the little that was available on possibilities for free trade among North and South American nations. This was 31 years before NAFTA.  The obvious Negative strategy was to argue that free trade was bad, and protectionism was good.  But there was also the possibility for outlining a different Plan, and I believe we tried that, arguing that it could succeed only if it created a trading partner with the European Common Market.

Our topic the next year was much more topical: Resolved: That Social Security benefits should be extended to include complete medical care.  This had been debated in the U.S. Congress during the Kennedy Administration, when it was called "Medical Care for the Aged," and would result in a landmark law about a year later in the summer of 1965, now called Medicare.

(Since research--especially on poverty among the elderly--led me to strongly favor the proposition, when on the negative I believe we again resorted to arguing against the plan, or just sadly proving that the affirmative hadn't made their case.)

Opposition to providing this medical care in the real world was an object lesson, since it was largely based on scare tactics, especially ideological shouting about "socialized medicine."  That was often the Negative line of attack, along with assertions that it was unaffordable and unworkable.  (Arguments that, we found, had been made against Social Security itself.)

So research was somewhat easier in the sense that there was a great deal more information available, but that became a problem of organizing it.  You had to anticipate the various arguments of your opposition.  So we lugged boxes full of file cards, clippings and article reprints to every debate.  Why?  Because our opponents would demand evidence of the truth of what we said.

That evidence had to be accurate.  And it had to come from a credible source.
Was it truly a fact, or an opinion? Then what was the source? First of all, you had to have one. “Everybody knows that” or “the American people believe” didn’t cut it. Neither did "according to a famous study." You had to have names, dates and places, or you’d soon hear your opponent scream, ”What’s your source?”

Then the source had to be credible. What qualified the source to make that statement? Was the information tainted by self-interest? Was the source of asserted fact generally reliable and unbiased? Was the opinion by a real authority?

If the fact is from a scientific study, how was it conducted? Are there other studies of this phenomenon and what did they conclude? And if it was a statistic, what did the numbers really mean? For instance, if the rate of rabies incidence in the population of Argyle, Nova Scotia went from 1% last year to 2% this year, there are different ways of saying it. You could say the rate went up by only 1%, and I could say it doubled.

 That's the cry heard most often in rebuttals--"what's your source?"  We learned so much about facts this way.  Facts were only as good as sources--and providing the credibility of the source was vital.  (It was also helpful to have the very same evidence as your opponent, so that if their use of it was selective, we could say, "but your source goes on to say...")

We had to be aware of possible bias by the author, organization or publication quoted (or the basis of our opponent's accusation of bias) so we could defend or attack the source's credibility.  So we had to approach what we read partly as our opponent might, to anticipate objections or--better--to find support for our contention from an unlikely source.

So we might point out when a study was financed by a biased entity, or for example when a certain speculative statistic was supplied by the American Medical Association, a staunch opponent of government funding medical care.

I expect we used what we could from other countries whose government funded medical care, like the UK and Canada, to suggest that it worked and that scary predictions hadn't happened. (As indeed, they haven't in the US.)

We learned about statistics--how to frame them and how to question them for what they really said.  There is a big difference, for example, between "average" and "median," with median (income, etc) usually telling you more.  You had to show how they applied to what you were talking about--or (arguing about your opponent's numbers) how they don't.

We also learned about relevance.  A blitz of facts wasn't enough--you had to demonstrate how these facts support your assertions and your case.  How does historical precedent, and even broad assertions of purpose, actually apply?

Manipulating information was also the intent of various forms of argument. We ran into variations of the classic logical fallacies, like “poisoning the well” (invalidating all arguments on the basis of a single assertion,) “begging the question” (restating your assertion as the conclusion, as in “big government is oppressive because it curtails your freedom”) or relying on a "straw man" argument, as well as various ad hominem attacks, such as mud-slinging, name-calling and emotionally loaded language. The argument from precedent or the simple but colorfully described assertion that all will end badly, without providing actual reasons. But mostly we dealt with inconsistent arguments that didn’t justify the particular conclusion. We could spot somebody confusing categories, making false analogies

Another aspect of debating was the importance of listening to your opponent, and especially of listening critically.  Listening critically to yourself and your partner was equally important in preparing.  These habits served me well in journalism as well as in evaluating public issues and arguments.

By debating both sides of a question, we learned that few issues are one-sided, and that general propositions may sound great but you need a workable plan. But most of all we learned how to test evidence and argument for validity, relevance and meaning.

All of this was in service of principles, of a vision, of a moral question, usually with historical roots.  Articulating those was kind of my specialty.  They were essential, but so were the facts, the argument, the plan.

I learned other lessons (such as the arbitrary nature of success--I still have ballots in which I was rated the best and the worst speaker in the same debate by different judges.) But in any event, my partner and I (Michael D. Krempasky, both years) were effective enough to win both the National Forensic League and Catholic Forensic League championships for our district in 1964.

These high school debates forever exposed the flaws in the presidential debates, and in turn, public affairs debates in general.  Evidence for assertions is rare, and facts are not disputed but simply ignored or countered with other "facts" with no evidence.

They illustrate for me as well that merely "fact-checking" is inadequate.  Some facts may be accurate but irrelevant, in either a positive or a negative sense.  Facts can be blown out of proportion, or applied wildly, or they can be said to prove what they don't come close to proving.

Fake news is only the beginning.  Fake debate, fake discussion that isn't about finding solutions but only gaining advantage is rampant.  And it's killing us.

Sunday, April 02, 2017

The White House of Blue Lies

How can you explain the connection between Homemade Hitler and his voters?  How can the continual lies be told and believed?

Those questions have haunted every political moment since at least the election.  Some social scientists believe they have the answer, which is somewhat enlightening, sort of common sense, and overblown, all at the same time.

It's all about what reinforces the identity of the group you belong to.  The echo chamber of views you all hear, talk about and subscribe to, from the people and outlets you trust to give you those views.  Your own misgivings or doubts don't count as much as the rewards of being acknowledged as a member of the group.  It's an emotional bond, it's a rush, the common laughter, the warmth of belonging.

One article I saw gave it all an evolutionary spin--the human social animal's survival depended on being included and valued within a specific group.  Anything that got you exiled could mean your doom.

Well, maybe.  But it's not hard to understand social pressure.  It was there in 50s suburbia and it was strange but fascinating for me to watch it unravel in the working class culture of western PA during Vietnam and Watergate.

Think also of conversations in the workplace.  Relationships and acceptance in a group depend on gossip about people not part of the group, or at least not there at that moment, as well as on more general outside topics.  In all these cases, the information that binds the group need not be true.  Gossip gets its bad name because a lot of it isn't true, and is often invented or believed because it's a good story, and everybody who shares it is in the devilish warmth of a conspiracy.  In the same way, stories about politicians and how politics works etc. are just different forms of gossip.

That's more or less the positive side: stuff that makes everybody feel good, because everybody agrees and will support each other in other ways, it is assumed.  But people are also united in anger, and that's become more common.

They are often people with a grievance, and they join together based on who and what they blame, and what they see as the solution.  This definition covers some ecological warriors as well as rabid righticans,  people who rant on the Internet and people who become terrorists.  Anger may be only one of their motivations but it's prime.

Anger is hard to sustain, so it must be fed with stories, and they might be true but they need not be true. The anger may begin with experiences and stories that are true, but that quickly expand to dubious and even outrageously false assertions. But they are accepted because they mostly must fit the pattern of what is already believed.  Like gossip--each new tidbit must be consistent with what is already believed.

This leads naturally to the theory of Blue Lies.  They are defined (in the words of this Scientific American article that links them directly to the White House) as "
a psychologist’s term for falsehoods, told on behalf of a group, that can actually strengthen the bonds among the members of that group."

So there are white lies, which don't hurt anyone, and black lies, which are harmful to all.  Blue lies are told against a group that's not your own, but that support your group's beliefs.

This article again gives it that evolutionary explanation, and notes that researchers have found "that this kind of lying seems to thrive in an atmosphere of anger, resentment, and hyper-polarization."  (See what I mean about both overblown and Captain Obvious.)

But the important thing about blue lies is that the lies out of the White House aren't even meant to convince everybody--or very likely, you.  They are meant to garner favor and create credibility with particular groups.

None of this is actually new, not even the social science patina.  And like most social science truisms, the basic mechanisms are pretty familiar from novels and movies.  Even in politics, the Bush II propagandists were pretty clear about it, chiding the "reality-based community" for even thinking all of their stuff was meant for them.  It's about whose buttons to push.

It's not new but in the national public realm of the US (with a global audience) it's more extreme than ever.  It's gone from Reagan's hyperbole and glib fibs to escalating partisan nastiness to our apprentice dictator's obvious and extreme lies, his utter disregard for the truth.  The normal tests for truth that clash with the blue lies are just ignored as invalid and partisan.  But it doesn't matter, as long as the target group gets the message (and adversaries are thrown into burbling, helpless chaos and accusations of untruth that feed into the narrative of their partisan hostility.)  

There are still subtleties and complications, though.  On the minus side, there are the darker beliefs and prejudices and unconscious bias that bind groups, that might not be overt, but might be expressed say in the secret ballot.  On the plus side, there's the human capacity for contradiction.

In a much earlier time, psychologist Carl Jung (who never would make the kind of deterministic, blanket statements that today's psychologists do with their pretty flimsy and flawed information) derived two observations from studying the process of how a normal if precocious little girl figured out the facts of life, and having done so, merely added them to her own fantasy explanation of birth and death.

His first observation was the power of fantasy in the lives of humans of all ages.  Consider how much of our lives is devoted to fantasy and fantasy worlds, and our culture especially.  Our fantasy worlds themselves create a culture, a group that we belong to.  To a degree we could see these fantasy worlds include political parties.

 His second observation was that people could hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time, and find some way to reconcile them.  He cited as example some tribal peoples who knew very well how babies were made but insisted they were made in another way.

The theory of blue lies suggests that all facts are mere assertions that either please or displease members of a group, and accordingly are either true or false for that group.  This it has seemed to me for some time is the operating belief of Republicans, along with the belief that everyone in Washington is equally corrupt.

That facts as such may no longer exist really alarms people.  For it makes civilization impossible, let alone democracy.  Up until now, we have had accepted tests of what is a fact and what isn't.  Just as we have had accepted evidence of what is a crime.  One of these days I may rehearse what some of those tests are, as I understand them, since they may be slipping out of public consciousness.

But for the moment there are a couple of points to tie this all together.  As important as facts and reason are, they aren't everything.  There are values, beliefs, fantasies, aesthetics, a spiritual realm.  As well as what's bred in our bones from millions of years, and dancing in our unconscious.  Sometimes these facts and these fantasies or beliefs contradict each other in some sense.  Then we have decisions to make.

Sometimes we can reconcile them, even if it means living with a kind of contradiction.  But it also means that accepting new facts need not destroy everything.

There are plenty of stories about culture heroes--or even small, tragic figures--who asserted something that went against the crowd and were exiled, punished, sacrificed.  But then the crowd changed.

Groups do change, and facts can be part of that.  Blue lies become seen as lies. The process may be slow, and it may cause trauma.  What may yet happen to Homegrown Hitler is that he is seen as a traitor, a false messiah.  It may be happening now.  But I think the contradictions are growing, too.  Some people who say they don't believe in climate change,  may also believe in climate change, for example.  They may not say so yet.  But they may look at their leaders differently.  And they may, with their secret ballots, choose other ones.

Meanwhile, the White House of blue lies is also the White House of trying to save our asses lies, and when that becomes obvious, it's a different game.  It may take awhile, as it did in the Watergate era. But the regime seems already down to its core believers, so like a lot of things these days, it might not take long at all. Which in some ways may not be good, because without adequate preparation and a smooth way forward, when the dam breaks, it's chaos.